Our “Navajo” Style Grazing Operation — By Todd Macfarlane
A few years ago, about the same time we started subscribing to Stockman Grass Farmer, we began trying to make the transition into more serious grass farming. So we sold our small, scenic gentleman’s hobby farm, and bought a small, somewhat run-down cattle ranch on the Eastern edge of the Great Basin. It was bigger than the previous place, and included some foothills and unimproved range ground, as well as some irrigated fields.
We had a few cows, and given our background and cattle-oriented paradigms, we were fairly determined to get more serious about the cattle business. We had a lot to learn. But the more I studied, read SGF, ran numbers, tended our cows and watched the markets, etc., I determined that maybe we ought to try something else too. From what I read, meat goats looked like a good bet. And our youngest son, Wyatt, who was only 6 or 7 at the time, was really interested in trying to do something with goats. Although I had grown up in a sheep ranching family, with plenty of sheep production background (which, combined with the poor sheep market right at that time, encouraged me to look other directions) I had virtually no experience with goats. But even I knew that goats require good fences. There’s an old saying that “if it can’t hold water, it won’t hold goats.” We knew our fences weren’t “goat tight,” so we knew our fences would be an issue.
But when a small herd of about 50 commercial meat goats (Spanish x Alpine x Boer crosses) came available locally, we didn’t let the condition of our fences stop us from jumping in, just to get started. Having run the numbers, I felt comfortable enough to let my three kids, ages 7-14, take money out of their bank accounts and buy the goats as in investment. This would be their business venture, and they would be largely responsible for tending and taking care of the goats, and I would do the best I could to advise them, and help market the goats profitably.
With the meat goats, we wanted to do a rotational grazing system like we had read about. Because of how the new place was situated at the base of a mountain range, running into the foothills, along with the fences, another challenge would be predators. Coyotes were regular visitors. So we fenced a paddock with two strands of standard electric fencing with a solar charger, and moved the goats in, hoping for the best. As long as we were watching, the goats would stay in, but as soon as we turned our backs, they would get out – and we couldn’t even tell where. Unfortunately, they ended up in a neighbor’s alfalfa field, where on one sad day, three of our best nannies bloated.
Then we tried electro-netting, but had almost as many problems with that. You should see how much havoc an infuriated horned nanny goat can wreak if she gets her head stuck in charged electronetting. This was really starting to get frustrating! So, we tried portable snow fence – if you know what that is – portable fencing made of three strands of twisted wire to secure narrow wood slats running vertically. We succeeded in keeping the goats in with the snow fence, but it was a pain in the neck to move, and very heavy and labor intensive – especially for kids the ages of ours. Up to that point the kids had still been fairly pumped about the meat goat business, but moving the snow fence took a lot of wind out of their sails.
Finally, the thought occurred to me that we were really making all this more difficult and complicated than it needed to be. The kids (especially the youngest) did, after all, have an abundance of time and even though it might not be the most exciting or stimulating job in the world, even at their ages, they had plenty of ability to simply herd, and tend the goats while they were grazing. And, that would give us a lot more flexibility – especially to graze places like willows along riparian areas, brushy slopes, and other places that were inherently hard to fence – especially for them, with snow fence.
In addition to having studied the Bible, including the Old Testament my whole life, with all its shepherding stories and references, I had also spent some time around the Navajo Indian Reservation, and had had plenty of opportunities to observe what I call “Navajo” grazing operations (which are essentially the same as Old Testament shepherding operations – which are much like small-scale nomadic shepherding operations all over the world since the dawn of time. In North America, though, historically the Navajos were the great shepherds of the Native American tribes. For more information on Navajo shepherding, see http://www.navajolifeway.org/, and http://navajosheepproject.com/).
In terms of how it works, what this typically means is that animals (sheep or goats) are penned up in a predator-tight “fold” at night, and turned out to graze during the day — oftentimes twice a day, first in the early morning, then allowing the animals to come back and “shade-up” during the heat of the day, and go out again in the late afternoon/evening, before coming back to be penned up tight at night, to prevent them from wandering off, and as a precaution against predators. While grazing during the day, again as a precaution against predators, and to keep track of them, the sheep and goats would typically be led, followed, or tended to some degree by a shepherd, in their mutual search for the best natural forage available, wherever it might be found. It is the low-budget epitome of adding value to sunshine by converting otherwise useless vegetation into consumable food and fiber.
As much as our kids had started to dislike the snow fence, right at first they weren’t all that excited about this new “Navajo shepherding” idea either. But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there were actually some advantages to this method, and (aside from possible rebellion and/or mutiny) there wasn’t any good reason it couldn’t/shouldn’t work. Besides, from a parent’s perspective, tending goats beat having the kids around the house acting bored between fence moves. So we built a solid “night fold” in a good convenient location, with a good water source, and plenty of shade, so the goats would be comfortable there day or night. And just to make things as easy as possible, and get everyone trained and acclimated, when we first started out, all three kids worked as a team to do the herding, and I supervised. Obviously, most of the work occurs when the goats are being turned out (to get them where they’re supposed to be) and brought back in. In between it was mostly just a lot of sitting around, watching grass grow and goats graze, and occasionally moving them, or stopping them from moving outside of the intended area.
After the first day, I would help turn the goats out and get them situated where we wanted them, with a human kid on each corner of the grazing area for control, and then I would go on about my day. After a couple days, once they had a pretty good hang of it, I started rotating the young shepherds, letting them all take turns tending the goats by themselves, with plenty of help turning the goats out and getting them situated, and putting them away. My wife insisted that they be equipped with two-way radios just in case needed help, or simply got too bored or lonesome and just needed someone to talk to.
Although all our kids rotated goat herding duties for awhile, as time went by, and I needed the older kids more and more for other ranch work (irrigating, haying, fencing, etc.), more and more of the shepherding chores fell to Wyatt, the youngest (then just 7). And the amazing thing is that as much challenge as a typical seven year-old might have with some other farm and ranch tasks, including operating farm equipment, for example, the basic concepts of shepherding are simple enough that virtually any responsible, and semi-savvy kid can do it, especially with a little guidance, direction, help, and most of all — encouragement. And what is even more amazing is that true to his age, Wyatt found a number of creative ways to amuse and entertain him, and pass the time. Although Wyatt did, more than once, emerge from his other activities to find the goats completely missing, he was always able to find them, and turned out to be a natural shepherd.
The thing that really made life easier for Wyatt (as well as our other young shepherds) didn’t happen until the next year when we acquired Bell, a well-trained Border Collie sheepdog. It’s amazing what a difference a good herding dog can make with our kind of grazing operation.
So with only relief help once in a while, Wyatt and Bell became the regular goat herders. They would take the goats out early every morning, and again in the late afternoon/evening, so that they would typically spend at least 5-6 hours a day grazing, hitting the spots that needed the most vegetative management and control, and otherwise seeking the best natural forage they could find. Under Wyatt’s primary care, and with Bell’s help, the goats have done very well.
We typically have long, hot, dry summers. The predominant natural vegetation in this valley is a native annual ryegrass that grows very tall, and typically matures, going to seed and turning yellow, like grain, fairly early. Consequently, in June, except for irrigated fields, it seems like the whole valley turns yellow, and stays that way until snow flies (although hopefully Fall rains come in time to germinate ryegrass seed early for the next spring). In addition to being mostly used for cattle pasture by local ranches, this native annual rye grass is often also harvested as cheap hay. Consequently, except in irrigated fields, native vegetative growth is very limited during July and August. During this period, the goats like to go through a patch of tall, mature native rye grass and just “clip” the seed heads. Otherwise, willows along riparian areas, browse and other leafy bushes are favorites that time of year. But the single best natural forage for helping bridge the gap during the long summer dry spell is morning glory. Although morning glory, or bindweed, is considered a noxious weed and is viewed as a plague by most farmers, with its deep root system, it is one of the only plants that really does very well (without irrigation) during our long, dry summers, and many times by August there will be a whole layer of morning glory, under the mature rye grass, in places, that will often climb the rye grass stems, much like peas or beans. It’s amazing what good forage morning glory is, and how both sheep and goats can absolutely bloom on it.
As we learned the ropes, including the natural vegetative cycle and the meat goat market cycle, we started weaning our goat kids early in August, so they wouldn’t have to compete with their mothers for the best forage. At that point, we would typically put the drying nannies on a rough, maintenance diet typically in leased, fenced native ryegrass fields that had been cut for hay. Although there is minimal feed value in the ryegrass stubble, we could rent the fields for next to nothing, and with the nannies now dry and not lactating, their nutritional requirements go way down, and there is usually just enough morning glory to help get them through to November, when we try to flush them for breeding on a combination of what is left of alfalfa stubble, and late-germinated winter annuals (usually Tricale) in our irrigated fields.
Because other goat producers in our area are typically running completely out of forage by August/September, in that time frame, depending on our own forage situation, we have often tried to buy more goat kids as they are weaned, sometimes doubling or tripling our own numbers, to graze mostly on morning glory and later on alfalfa stubble until November/December when the ethnic meat goat market really picks up for the holiday season. Based on our location, most of our goats are usually marketed live, either direct to Hispanic customers locally, or through an urban broker, likewise usually to Hispanics. Several years, we sold most of our kids (and as many more as we could buy/haul) in Las Vegas, Nevada. When the economy and job market started to sour in Las Vegas, however, many Hispanics moved elsewhere, so we started taking goats as far as California, if necessary, to get the kind of premium prices that we had come to expect.
In conclusion, when Wyatt first started out herding, he was too young to get some other kind of summer job, but he was more than capable of tending goats. Because of the disproportionate amount of time Wyatt spent tending the goats, he also got a disproportionate split of the resulting profits – which have amounted to some fairly amazing sums for all our kids at their ages, With dad’s extra help with marketing, and willingness to haul the goats to ethnic goat brokers in larger urban areas, living essentially out in the middle of nowhere, without a lot of other options and opportunities for our kids to make money, our Navajo grazing meat goat operation has worked very well, and our kids have always been able to “smile all the way to the bank.”